By Layne Lieberman, MS, RD, CDN
Heart disease continues to be the leading cause of death in both men and women. Luckily, it’s preventable and controllable. With new cholesterol guidelines from the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology, more and more Americans will be prescribed drugs known as statins to lower cholesterol. Of course, there’s another way to get results: Diet and exercise are the foundations for heart health and are without the side effects of drugs.
I’m a Registered Dietician, a Culinary Nutritionist, and Author of “Beyond The Mediterranean Diet: European Secrets Of The Super-Healthy” but I have an even deeper personal connection to this topic: I was diagnosed with high cholesterol at age 9.
My reading was over 300 mg/dl. Less than 200 mg/dl is the desired level. The diagnosis at such a young age gave me the impetus to become a leading nutrition expert. Today, my cholesterol is controlled with diet and exercise, but it’s still over the recommended 200mg/dl. After doing research, I decided to take a heart scan to see if I had any signs of plaque in my arteries. The results came back with a total score of zero. My doctor recommends continuing my heart-healthy diet and exercise program without cholesterol-lowering medications. You should always talk to your physician before making any changes to your medical care, but these dietary changes are ones that are easy (and safe) for anyone to adapt.
1) Eat foods high in soluble fiber at least twice a day: oats, barley, legumes (black beans, kidney beans and navy beans), fruits (apricots, oranges, mangos, grapefruits), Brussels sprouts, turnips, sweet potatoes, asparagus and flaxseeds.
2) If you are overweight, plan to lose gradually. One to two pounds per week is an ideal goal. A registered dietitian (RD) can tailor a diet to fit your lifestyle.
3) Go easy on fat because it is the most calorically dense food component. Eat whole foods that are high in monounsaturated fat and omega-3 fatty acids as a replacement to refined oils and processed fats. For example, spread avocado on bread instead of cream cheese. Sprinkle salads with walnuts instead of croutons.
4) One to two servings of fish per week could reduce your risk of dying of a heart attack by a third or more. Choose fatty fish like salmon, herring and sardines and buy sustainable wild-caught seafood when available. Know the sources and practices of farm-raised varieties to avoid antibiotics and other chemicals. Eat a variety of species and avoid those high in mercury or other contaminants. For example high levels of mercury are found in shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish (aka golden bass or golden snapper). Shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon and Pollock are low in mercury.
5) Cook at home often. Restaurants are not as health-conscious as you’d expect. Most chefs are trained to cook with an abundance of salt, fat and sugar. Not only will you be in control of the ingredients, but you can also properly portion food when you eat at home. (Watch this super-healthy plate video.)
6) To reduce cravings, drink water and herbal tea in between meals; and start meals with veggie based soups or salads, dressing on the side. A small square of dark chocolate is enough to satisfy a sweet tooth.
7) Instead of salt, use seasonings like pepper, fresh herbs and spices. Freshly ground pink peppercorns are mild and sweet. If you cannot give up salt entirely, mix dried herbs with Himalayan salt (a rock salt from Pakistan). If you want to get fancy and flavorful, try a mix of dried truffles with sea salt.
8) When food-shopping favor markets that offer organic, natural, grass-fed, local and whole foods. Reduce your intake of processed foods. Visit weekly farmers markets when in season. Get to know the source of the food you put on your table.
9) Take time to de-stress and exercise. Whether it’s walking, yoga or spin-class, make exercise a habit. In order to get natural vitamin D from the sun, include more outdoor activity, even if it’s just a 15-minute walk everyday. It will lift your mood and keep your mind on track.
10) Enjoy your food. Eat slowly & share cooking/meals with family & friends. In order to do so, use smaller plates, glasses & utensils. Focus on the company and conversation.
Follow Layne Lieberman on Twitter.